Running a successful business is not a sprint or a marathon…

There is a common saying that running a successful business and having a successful career is a “marathon, not a sprint”. The saying is meant to remind people to think long term, to pace themselves and have longevity in mind, rather than just short-term results.

At first, the metaphors of the sprint and the marathon may seem a fitting comparison for a business and/or career. They bring to mind images of results-focused individuals putting whatever they can into their respective races, to get the best result they can. People committing themselves to getting ahead and staying ahead of the competition.

However, when you look at the complete lifecycle of a business, the metaphor is flawed. A marathon or sprint implies a race where you are supposed to exhaust all your resources to get to an end point ahead of your competitors and, as such, it misses an important measure of a successful business and career. Surely one of the measures of a successful businessperson is whether they have built something that will carry on after they have gone…  something that is sellable?

Famous successful businesspeople (Ray Krok with McDonalds, Steve Jobs with Apple, Bill Gates with Microsoft, Ingvar Kamprad with Ikea, etc., etc.) are seen as such, not just because of what they were able to build themselves, but also because they were able to build something that was more than them alone. They were able to exit, and the business survived and thrived after their exit.

In this respect, if we are going to compare running a successful business with a running race, it is much more like a relay race than a sprint or a marathon.

For those unfamiliar with the relay, it is a race where several runners from the same team take turns running. Each runner runs their interval of the race to the best of their ability; at the end of each runner’s race, they need to pass a small rod—the ‘baton’—to the next runner, without slowing down, giving the main responsibility for the race to someone else from that point forward.

Having a successful business and career involves being focussed both on your individual race and being able to ‘pass the baton’.

Your individual race is incredibly important. As a vet, the measure of this will be your ability to gather a large and loyal client base and run a profitable practice for many years, with a good reputation for ethical and quality clinical work.

Working out how to “pass the baton” successfully in a business means having an exit plan, so that you are able to sell your practice at the end of your time on the track. Without this, you will miss out on a significant financial component of your career and your business/practice’s legacy will end with you.

When a business owner understands this, they start to shift their business game plan and the way they approach practice decision making, recognising the larger strategy of building towards a handover event. For example:

  • Ensuring that the lease on your premises has more years than you will need, so that the person that comes after you will be secure.
  • Maintaining and reinvesting in your practice fit-out and equipment, so that it lasts beyond your time there.
  • Understanding that your time in practice is not about depleting all of your resources to squeeze the most out of your time on the track, but instead pacing yourself and recognising the impact of fatigue, so that you can pass the baton while still in full stride, rather than when you (and your business) have started to slow down. This enables you and the person you are handing over to get the full reward for the gains that you made in your race.
  • Acknowledgement that a good handover often requires the two runners to be running at the same time side by side, to affect a smooth handover without slowing down. As a business owner this usually means agreeing to work for a period post sale alongside the buyer, to ensure maximum client retention.
  • Understanding that “passing the baton” in business is not just a financial transaction, but also about compatibility. The relationship between a buyer and seller should not be an adversarial one, where each is trying to squeeze more out of the deal at the other’s expense. The bigger picture common goal for both parties is the ongoing strength of the practice and, while a sale is a negotiation of price and terms, it needs to be done with this foundation. For example:
    • A vendor choosing between two possible buyers needs to take compatibility into account. An extra $10K in sale price will not adequately compensate a practice owner for the heartache of having sold their practice (and handing over staff and clients) to an unethical or clinically incompetent buyer.
    • A buyer squeezing an extra $10k-$20k out of a seller at the expense of the ongoing relationship of the vendor compromises what is being bought and sold and makes no sense at all.